John Wray’s The Lost Time Accidents is filled with references to its many inspirations. Its greatest homage must be to Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, in terms of its confused chronology and ‘unsticking’ from time.
Like Billy Pilgrim, Wray’s protagonist, Waldemar Tolliver, is “excused from time”. This is due to a hereditary phenomenon he refers to as “the Accidents”. His new world is now the inside of a singularity that bears an uncanny resemblance to his dead aunt’s library. He writes letters to his old lover, Mrs. Haven, about his ancestral history with omniscience he acknowledges as impossible but justifies as fact fed by imagination. After all, “Every history”, he says, “is an act of subterfuge”’. His self-professed motivation is to discover a way to re-enter the time continuum, but this is a plot point frequently left by the wayside as Waldemar (or perhaps more accurately, Wray) spends most of his 490 pages contemplating almost every subject other than that.
From the comfort of his armchair, Waldemar narrates his way through ancestral encounters with Hitler and Klimt, disproves Einstein and falls in love. His many tangents are Wray at his most brilliant but also his most self-indulgent. The explanations of complex concepts are laid out without pretence and often with humour, though his references are occasionally so niche that Wray is forced to follow them with a rather condescending ‘of course’, as if to soften the blow to our egos when we have no idea what on earth he’s talking about.
The plot outlined in the spaces between these interruptions is entertaining in itself, though its hampered rather than helped by Waldemar’s digressions. Marlon James (2015 winner of the Man Booker Prize) is quoted on the front cover as calling the story “epic in scale”, and Wray does do a good job at effectively evoking the various historical contexts in which he sets his characters; however, James’ claim that the novel is “even bigger in heart” is harder to concur. Waldemar does, admittedly, suffer from a serious case of sentimentalism, but this does little to disguise how unsympathetic he is as a protagonist. His major emotional struggle is his separation from Mrs. Haven, but the mystery of their romance is unravelled at such an achingly slow pace that the final revelation arrives with more of a stutter than a bang.
The Lost Time Accidents isn’t the sci-fi romance its blurb believes it to be. It is less importantly a novel than it is a vehicle for Wray to play in periods of history, debating philosophy and science through the guise of fiction.
The result is impressive, but only entertaining if we view Wray as he views himself: less of a novelist than a time-traveller in the style of Waldemar and Billy – a fly on the wall observing history through the medium of imagination.
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
Photo courtesy of Canongate